Facebook, Context, and Privacy

By now it’s basic knowledge — and grist for funny mainstream humor — that young people put overly personal stuff into their social networking pages with abandon, and that schools are flailing around trying ever harder to dissuade them.

But I think one Florida State law professor went too far, if this comment on a recent Prawfsblawg post is correct:

One law prof at FSU started class the first day by making all the students read their Facebook profiles out loud. [T]he girls [sic] whose hobby was “being slutty” was particularly embarrassed…

Now, on one level I suppose this is a lesson well-learned for a student who ought to know better. Probably she shouldn’t memorialize such things in writing at all — to quote Dick Cheney, who knows a thing or two about keeping secrets: “I learned early on that if you don’t want your memos to get you in trouble some day, just don’t write any.” I agree that many students — and everyone else — ought to use better judgment when deciding what information to put online. This stuff is permanent, and employers look at these sites, and all that. And at first blush it may seem hard to consider it an invasion of privacy to make someone acknowledge what she has already presented as her own public self-definition, a part of her “profile.”

But this seems to take the typically blase attitude to humiliating law students to a whole new depth. Compelling students to read their Facebook profiles in class like this wrenches personal information out of its proper context and puts it in a radically different space with different conventions and assumptions. Furthermore, social networking sites have privacy settings — maybe this woman took advantage of them and restricted access to her profile to her friends. And finally, changing context converts jokes and irony into something else. Acting as if everything you say could come out in a job interview would reduce our conversation to platitudinous pap. And that’s what Facebook is, a form of conversation.

There are answers to all of these points, but they boil down to those I acknowledged above: the idea that students are naive if they think the autobiographical content they generate in online life will be interpreted exactly the way they intended by exactly the audience they intended. Sure, and an important lesson to learn, I suppose, but I think there is something deeper here: a hostility of some old folks (that is, anyone who still uses e-mail to communicate, a group that includes me) toward this newfangled Web 2.0 stuff. In a typically thoughtful post on this general subject (though not the FSU incident), Belle Lettre makes some excellent points about the virtues and vices of social networking for the typical law student and the animosity or bewilderment of some professors to the phenomenon. And she ends on this note:

I think that many professors are too private for the Facebook world, and much of the personal blogging world. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Just like there’s nothing inherently wrong with those with more lax privacy standards. To each his own, and to each his own audience. There are those who will care, and those who don’t won’t read such blogs or engage Facebook with the same alacrity. So you may be bewildered by your students’ online activity, but that is why you have fingers–so that you may scratch your head in bemusement.

So, I’ll take Belle’s advice: scratch, scratch, scratch. But it’s their life, both real and virtual, and frankly it’s none of my business.

4 Responses to “Facebook, Context, and Privacy”

  1. […] McGeveran, a professor at University of Minnesota Law School, points to this troubling story about a Florida State professor who made each student read aloud his/her […]

  2. A similar thing happened during a public event showcasing the final projects for class I taught a few years ago. One student’s project was to assess to privacy implications of social networking sites, so he printed out the Facebook page of each student in the class and distributed them at the public event. His fellow students were aghast that their profiles, while (relatively) openly displayed online, were now being distributed on paper.

  3. This is an inherent part of the life cycle of most new technology. Younger generations typically adapt quickly to new trends in technology. Only after time has passed do we see the older generations adapting and realizing the benefits new technology has to offer. The advent of email is a good example of this. However I think this article makes a strong case that both generations have something to learn from the other.

  4. […] excellent scholarship & commentary on privacy in social networking sites (like danah boyd or Bill McGeveren or Dan Solove or Fred Stutzman, just to name a […]